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As of March 2022, the United States’ total inmate population is approximately 2 million individuals, including those housed in 1,566 state prisons and 102 federal penitentiaries. 

According to Kent State University, the U.S. judicial system today incarcerates approximately 0.7% of the general population. 

In the criminal justice system, a penitentiary is an institution that conducts punishment or detention for offenders of the law. A penitentiary is a type of jail.

The federal government operates federal prisons or penitentiaries. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is an agency under the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) that manages and regulates all U.S. federal penal and correctional institutions. 

Like jails, private institutions operate some prisons and penitentiaries. In general, prisons incarcerate inmates with sentences over one year. 

You may wish to locate an individual in one of the thousands of state or federal penitentiaries or local jails in the U.S. However, visiting multiple websites of state, federal, and local correctional facilities is challenging. is a one-stop website where you can locate valuable information regarding inmates and correctional facilities, including penitentiaries, prisons, and jails throughout the U.S. Simply search by jail name, jail type, or state.

If you wish to know more about penitentiaries, read on.

Jails and Penitentiaries: What Is the Difference?

Some individuals use the terms “jails” and “prisons” synonymously. 

However, the primary difference between jail and prison is the inmate’s length of stay. Jails usually house inmates in the short term and prisons in the long term.  

In addition, local law enforcement and local government agencies usually operate jails. Jails often house inmates serving short-term sentences, such as for misdemeanor convictions over one year. 

Meanwhile, a judicial system accommodates offenders convicted of more severe crimes in state and federal prisons and penitentiaries. 

Individuals frequently use the term “penitentiary” in formal contexts. A penitentiary is a type of prison, like a state or federal prison in the United States, which often houses criminals convicted of serious crimes. Such sentences may also include misdemeanor convictions over one year.  

Generally, a state government or the BOP usually operates prisons. They often offer various programs to inmates based on their level of custody: 

  • Minimum security
  • Maximum security
  • Solitary confinement 

Minimum security programs usually include:

Halfway houses. These residences are for individuals released from institutionalization that facilitates their adjustment to private life.

Community restitution centers: These centers provide alternatives to imprisonment for minimal-risk offenders who need a more structured environment. 

Inmates nearing the conclusion of their prison terms are usually eligible for such programs. 

Why Is It Called a Penitentiary?

Etymology, the study of the origin of words, can provide insights into modern terms.  

The term “penitentiary” originates from the Latin word paenitentia, which means  “repentance.” A penitentiary is where a court sends people to make repentance for a crime committed. They can show penitence or sorrow for their wrongdoing. 

What Is the Meaning of “State Penitentiary”?

State prisons and penitentiaries are state government-operated correctional facilities. The primary function of state prison systems is to house inmates that violate various state laws. 

A state’s Department of Corrections usually helps oversee prisoners’ incarceration within a particular state prison system. State prisons tend to house more violent criminals than federal prisons. 

Federal prisons have five levels of security. Meanwhile, state prisons typically only have three, including: 

A state criminal justice system tries and sentences inmates in state prisons.

The Department of Corrections (DOCs) Objectives  

The objectives of DOCs include:

Reintegrating Housed Inmates Back Into Their Communities

Helping individuals re-enter society is one of the objectives of DOCs. The department ensures that housed inmates are healthy, drug-free, and employable once they return to their communities.  

DOCs offer education, rehabilitation, treatment, and restorative justice programs to help achieve that goal. 

Breaking the Cycle of Incarceration and Reducing Recidivism 

Recidivism is the tendency of individuals to return to a previous condition or mode of behavior. 

DOCs’ goals include increasing the safety of prison staff, offenders, and communities. 

For example, DOCs’ rehabilitation programs support individuals’ readiness and improvement by promoting productive learning. The programs may also include teaching prosocial skills to help offenders re-enter communities. 

Redirecting Individuals’ Lives

The goal for individuals on “lockup” is to become law-abiding members of society. DOCs can provide programs like:

  • Guidance and counseling services
  • Library and law library services
  • Educational and vocational training
  • Alcohol and substance abuse treatment
  • Religious services

Are Penitentiaries Actually Worse Than Jails?

A penitentiary is a type of prison. As noted, the operators and general length of sentences serviced differ among jails and prisons. 

For example, offenders generally serve sentences of less than a year in local jails. However, they usually serve sentences for over a year in state and federal prisons and penitentiaries. 

Individuals in Jails 

Jails house a broad mixture of inmates in various stages of the criminal process, including those in post-arrest and post-incarceration supervision. Every year, several millions of detainees cycle through jails.

Individuals in jails may include:

  • Detainees charged with a crime yet cannot post bail
  • Defendants convicted of a crime yet not sentenced
  • Defendants with misdemeanor convictions under one year
  • Defendants convicted of felonies and serving jail time or awaiting transfer
  • Defendants on probation or parole “hold” awaiting a hearing or determination for an alleged supervision violation 
  • Defendants awaiting transportation to county jail, another state facility, or a federal facility.
  • Defendants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) 

Pre-trial offenders may remain in jail for over a year based on the time needed for their case to proceed through the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, individuals who cannot post bail for complex cases may complete long jail stays. 

Individuals in Penitentiaries

State prisons generally house individuals with sentences ranging from one year of incarceration to life in prison

Individuals serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole and death row inmates remain incarcerated until their passing unless the case is successfully:

  • Appealed
  • Commuted 
  • Pardoned

The process of “commuting” a sentence involves the power to substitute a judiciary’s verdict for a lesser sentence.

Inmates in state penitentiaries usually include defendants who committed crimes in that state. However, prisons may hold out-of-state inmates who are not safe at correctional facilities within the state where they committed the crime. 

Federal prisons house pre-trial detainees accused of and convicted of federal crimes. An individual can enter the federal prison system anywhere in the U.S. 

The states that contain federal prisons include New York, California, and Texas

What Are the Security Levels of Federal Penitentiaries?

The Bureau of Prisons categorizes a federal prison as one of five security levels. These levels include:  

Several factors determine the security level of a federal prison:

  1. The use of mobile patrols driving around the prison’s perimeter 24 hours daily
  2. Gun towers are situated throughout the prison’s outside perimeter. BOP guards track movement and activities while inside the gun towers.
  3. Perimeter barriers separating the prison and community 
  4. Detection devices like sound guns and metal detectors that can intercept inmates’ conversations
  5. Internal security, including window bars and door locks 
  6. Housing factors such as whether the prison confines inmates in locked rooms or has open dormitories
  7. The ratio of prison staff members to inmates

The highest prison security levels provide the least liberties and most restrictions. 

As of July 2022, the most secure federal prison in the U.S. is the administrative-maximum security prison (ADX). The ADX is at the Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colorado

Prisoners confined in this institution have minimum contact with other individuals. In addition, BOP operates particular Special Management Units (SMUs) within U.S. penitentiaries. 

The judicial system sends offenders to the ADX or an SMU after authorities have determined that individuals are predatory or unable to function in more open prisons. 

The U.S. sets criteria for serving time in federal prisons with particular security levels. 

Eastern State Penitentiary: Famous Prison With a Past

Following the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War in 1787, delegates James Madison and Alexander Hamilton drafted what eventually became the U.S. Constitution. 

During that year, a group of civic-minded leaders met at Benjamin Franklin’s home to debate the issue of prison reform. Conditions at America’s first jail, Walnut Street Jail, were problematic during this time. 

From its founding, Pennsylvania aimed to differ from the other American colonies. For example, founder William Penn held Quaker values that avoided the harsh criminal code of British North America. 

Quakers are in a Christian group known as the Society of Friends. Early Quakers opposed both Protestants and Roman Catholics. 

Meanwhile, Dr. Benjamin Rush was a famous Philadelphia physician interested in politics. Dr. Rush served in the Second Continental Congress and signed America’s Declaration of Independence.

In 1787, Rush proclaimed that U.S. judicial system needed radical changes. He argued that crime was a “moral disease” and suggested a “house of repentance” was needed. These prisoners could:

  • Meditate on their crimes
  • Undergo rehabilitation 
  • Experience spiritual remorse

Afterward, the criminal justice system implemented prison reform at the Walnut Street Jail. For example, the prison segregated inmates by crime and sex.  

Meanwhile, the Eastern State Penitentiary’s construction started in 1822. It featured an innovative architectural design with seven wings of individual cell blocks extending from a central hub. 

The U.S. first penitentiary opened in 1829 and featured central heating and individual shower baths. Such innovations helped lead to today’s individual housing units in U.S. jails and prisons. 

Additionally, penitentiaries are required to meet state and federal requirements regarding issues like accessibility. 

Other results of prison reform include prison industries like prison pen pal websites. These services allow individuals to exchange letters with inmates. However, you should consider safety precautions, such as using a P.O. box rather than a home address.

The judicial system has expanded significantly since the first American prison. Today, the U.S. spends over $80 billion on public prisons. 

Prison Movies 

Several popular prison movies earning box office revenues include:

  • The Great Escape (1963)
  • Cool Hand Luke (1967) 
  • The Longest Yard (1974)
  • Escape from Alcatraz (1979) 
  • Too Sweet (1979) 
  • Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) 
  • The Shawshank Redemption (1994) 
  • The Green Mile (1999)

Such movies address several prison-related issues such as lockdowns, hard labor, and mental health. 

You can read critic reviews before watching such movies. The reviews may also include citations that provide additional information regarding the films.


When the Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829, nations worldwide were amazed by the building’s architecture and the founders’ progressive philosophy. 

The construction costs of the Eastern State Penitentiary made it the most expensive construction project in the U.S. 

Additionally, the prison’s use of prisoner reform through strict isolation became a model throughout the world.   

In 1971, the Eastern State Penitentiary closed and became a national historic landmark. 

Events and More

Eastern State Penitentiary annually holds one of the United States’ most popular haunted houses. The event includes high-quality special effects and lighting, digital sound, and animatronic creatures. 

Why Visit Eastern State?

Eastern State Penitentiary remains one of the world’s most famous prisons. Past inmates included the legendary gangster Al Capone. 

Some of the prison’s features included:

  • Gothic architecture
  • Quaker-inspired use of solitary confinement for prisoner reform 
  • Wagon-wheel floor plan 
  • Exhibits such as Al Capone’s restored cell 

More Interesting Facts  

  • America’s oldest jail is the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Workers began constructing the prison in 1773 and demolished it around 1835. The prison fronts Walnut Street.  
  • Experts often consider the Eastern State Penitentiary the world’s first true “penitentiary,” inspiring genuine regret among prisoners. This famous prison also had running water and central heating before the White House had such amenities.  
  • Eastern State is located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and opened in 1829. The prison housed famous inmates, including Al “Scarface” Capone, a famous American gangster.  
  • The U.S. Congress established the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in 1930. The federal prison system had existed for nearly four decades and expanded to nearly a dozen federal prisons. The BOP’s responsibilities increased as the prison populations grew. 


1.  Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022
2. Correctional Institutions
3. Plate 24: Goal, in Walnut Street
4. A storied past
5. Eastern State
6. State prisons
7.  What is the difference between jail and prison?
8. What Percent of the U.S. Is Incarcerated?
9. Commute a sentence
10. Detention and correctional facilities
11. Restitution centers
12. Economics of incarceration

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